Opt-out of Solutionism: Peeping inside the mind of Evgeny Morozov

Just as the Twitterpics appeared of the statue of Lenin being dragged to the ground in Kiev, Evgeny Morozov was telling his London fans “Training dissidents to use social media and apps just allows regimes to predict and control events”. He should know – that was his first day-job, touring former Soviet states with NGOs spreading the gospel of Facebook.

Evgeny the evangelist of social media has now turned against it. He denounces technocracy on a class basis, pointing out that Silicon Valley is peopled by very wealthy individuals who believe that – whatever problem arises in society – there’s an app for it.

How can MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) solve the problem of education in Africa? All that MOOCs do – according to Morozov – is reduce education to a transaction and make it harder for serious academics to get tenure in universities.

Want to fix obesity? An activity tracker on your phone and a smart bra will enable you to take control of your weight loss regime. That is easier for politicians, he suggests, than curbing the power of the big soft-drinks and junk-food manufacturers.

Morozov portrays this ‘solutionism’ (his word) as cowardly abdication by our leaders rather than a means of empowerment for citizens. Deriding the politicians who choose apps over structural change “because they’re shinier and cheaper” he mocked the Obama administration which tried – and failed – to launch a new healthcare website (healthcare.gov) in the same week that Amazon announced it would soon start using drones to deliver book.

The new ‘demappcracy’ (my word) relies on crowdsourcing, open data, online petitions and social media that transcend censorship and political firewalls.

What should we do, I asked, if we don’t want to be governed in this way? Should we become Internet refuseniks?

The pragmatic answer is you have to figure out what kind of politics you endorse and then choose the right tools. The bigger problem is that it reduces everything to a matter of choice and the act of choosing is to accept that intrusion of technology into our everyday life, that it’s a given. It’s a sort of social and political consumerism.”

I took that as a ‘no’. But Morozov did not offer any alternative.

The American-Belorussian iconoclast predicted that in the near future we shall all be able to enjoy goods and services for free, in return for selling or monetising our personal data. He gave as one example a man who opens his fridge to get a glass of juice, only to find a pop-up on his smartphone asking him to consent to a company monitoring the length of time his fridge door is open and the items he takes out, in return for a discount voucher.

Another chilling scenario, depicted a smart toothbrush that monitors the quality and frequency of our dental hygiene habits and sends the data back to our dentist, doctor – and health insurer.

Morozov was in London promoting his new book ‘To save everything click here’.

In it he claims the moral high ground as a ’post-Internet thinker’. He decries what he calls the ‘one-dimensional engineers’ of Silicon Valley who substitute individualised technological applications for the tried-and-trusted systems of representative democracy, investigative journalism and the universities. He differentiates himself from Internet theorists who – he says – ‘venerate an imaginary god of their own making and live in denial’.

There is an old Left proverb that says ‘I’ll be a post-feminist when we live in a post-patriarchy’. It could equally apply to Mozorov’s post-Internet dystopia.

Jane Whyatt